Watch.

Luke 21:25-36

25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The Lesson of the Fig Tree

29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Exhortation to Watch

34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

What catches our imagination when we see things clearly?  Or maybe not clearly?!  There is a lot of “looking”, watching, seeing, in this morning’s gospel passage.  

I was looking for lyrics to songs about seeing as I was writing this sermon.  Then it hit me as I did a search for “seeing”.  The problem is not seeing something, not seeing that so much is changing in the world, the issue is what do we see, or who do we see?  

These are some of the most longing and beautiful words about seeing from the musical artist, Peter Gabriel, from a few years ago:

In your eyes

The light, the heat (in your eyes)

I am complete (in your eyes)

I see the doorway (in your eyes)

To a thousand churches (in your eyes)

The resolution (in your eyes)

Of all the fruitless searches (in your eyes)

Oh, I see the light and the heat (in your eyes)

Oh, I wanna be that complete

PP

I wanna touch the light, the heat I see in your eyes

Love, I don’t like to see so much pain

So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away

I get so tired working so hard for our survival

I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive

And all my instincts they return

And the grand facade, so soon will burn

Without a noise, without my pride

I reach out from the inside

The issue for us, is do we see out of love, deep love…not just love for another human, a project, or even a church or a family, but the deep universal love that keeps us grounded, helps us to come alive.  The love that God gives us of God’s Self.

Richard Rohr this week in my daily devotional said this:  

Those who truly live in The Story have embraced and integrated their personality, shadow, woundedness, family issues, culture, and contextualizing life experiences under The One. . . . This is a truly integral spirituality, a truly catholic worldview, and the unrecognized goal of all monotheistic religions. These, like Jesus, desire “nowhere to rest their head” except in the One and Universal Love. 

We come to this morning’s gospel lesson and its word on seeing, on watching.  The setting is right before Jesus and the disciples have their last supper.  Jesus is teaching in the temple and telling folks that they should recognize the signs all around them.  That there is distress in the nations, a foreboding of what is to come and to be on the look-out for the Son of Man, the Messiah.

It’s interesting that not much has changed since Jesus gave those words.  In Jesus’ time there were protests, Roman oppression and rule, unjust systems and folks rising up to challenge them, and wars, always wars.  

Today, if you only watch the news for 5 minutes, you see about the same things.  Different actors, but still the same.

Not only are their signs of the times that tell us that something isn’t right in the world, but we see so much in our own lives:   conflicts with others, a deep sense of distrust, a desire to win rather than work together towards good goals, a deep sense of anxiety and fear within culture and within ourselves.  We not only see signs of distress in culture, but in our lives.  I talk with folks all of the time that are dealing with panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and situational as well as chronic depression…as well as grief and loss…which is OK, it’s part of it…I know it so well in this season of my own life.   

We all see things that can lead one towards despair and even confusion.  What’s going on here?  We may wonder.  But, Jesus has other words for us, that when we sense some of the things I just mentioned, there is a deeper promise that God has made to us.  We are not alone and that God has come, is here, and will come for us.  

The writer of Luke is telling us that God’s promise of entering humanity is upon us.  That in the midst of the anxiety, distress, and confusing times, that there is good news.  When we read this passage of Luke, we can respond in several ways:  one is fear, the other is faith that God will keep God’s promises and we can life expectantly and with joy, hope, peace, and love.  

Rather than looking at the events around us with fear and anxiety, we can live with confidence and courage.  A Greek word that is used often to describe God’s Presence is Parousia.  It means literally presence, arrival, or visit.  God’s Kingdom is upon us, God’s Presence.  The question for us is do we see the signs of God’s Presence in our lives?

Do we sense that something new is emerging within our lives and do we live in expectation of this newness being made known?  Do we get wrapped up in the anxiety and emotion of external issues that arise around us or are we able to take a deep breath and sense that something good may arise out of whatever situation that we are facing eventually?  Or, better yet, we may not see anything good come out of some situations, but do we have a sense that we can sit with whatever is happening and know that we are not alone and that we can share whatever is happening with others and with God?

I believe that cultivating this sense of Presence is key for our lives.  If we work from love, from faith, we can see so much in our lives and in the world that strengthen our faith in God and in others…if we can live our lives acknowledging the Presence of God around us.  As we listen to ourselves, others, and attempt to look at even familiar things with a sense of God’s presence in everything, we can catch those glimpses of God that can move us towards growth.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.   Advent literally means that we are preparing for the coming of Jesus.  It is about arrival, coming into place, viewing something in a new way.  Today, we have a sign of a candle being lit representing hope. 

Hope is defined in the dictionary in several ways: 
a person or thing that may help or save someone.grounds for believing that something good may happen…a feeling of trust.

Faith is similar and somethings this Sunday can be called the faith Sunday.  Faith is defined in the dictionary as trust or confidence in someone or something especially when things are not black and white, it is also a strong belief in God based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.  Faith can give us hope, which is deeper than optimism…

Luke is calling us out to have faith and hope that we may never understand, but we can live into or apprehend, we can’t prove it.  But, it is a faith that keeps us alert, keeps us living expectantly.  We are called to be open to God’s breaking into our lives in the most unexpected ways.  God is showing us things all of the time.  We can be stubborn or attempt to control what signs God may be giving us, we can be resistant to God’s Presence out of fear and a desire to cling to what we know.  Or, we can see, that, just like the seasons give us clues that change is upon us, that God’s Presence in our lives has arrived, is arriving, and will arrive.  We can see that as we stay alert and practice listening or noticing the signs of God’s activity, that we can have lives filled with meaning, purpose, and even gratitude in the midst of all of the craziness that we experience within us and around us.  

Truth.

John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[a] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Who are you?  That’s a great question.  Who are we?  I know you’ve heard me say this before, but I don’t like to be labeled.  I like running, but I don’t want to just be known as a runner.  I want to be healthy.  I’m a spouse, parent, friend, etc…but I want to also be known as a someone that cares, is open, loves well, is inconsistent at times, but always willing to go deeper in who I am with others and with myself.  Same thing about being a pastor.  Love it.  And, quite honestly, being at Fleming Road UCC has rekindled my love and deepened my call of being a pastor.  But, I want to be known for deeper things as well…a friend first as Christ was/is a friend.  

You can go down the line:  politics, theology, associations, etc.  I want to be something more than the things that I may engage in…I think we all do. 

This morning’s gospel lesson is about getting to the truth of who we are.  

It is also full of drama.  The writer in John is attempting to tell a beautiful story about “truth”.  In our culture today, people are always talking about biblical truth.  It’s interesting to me on how many things people say is biblical truth, while others say the exact opposite as biblical truth.  It’s one of those dead end arguments, if you say something is biblically true, it’s like you are trying to shut down an argument.

But, the writer of John is trying cut through the distractions and point to Truth.  I’d say truth with a capital “T”.   A truth that isn’t convenient, but is deep and lasting, and requires courage to live into.  A truth that has much more to about relational reality than facts or figures.  

The dramatic fashioning of the story is interesting.  The actors in this drama leading to Jesus’ crucifixion have all left the stage, except for Mary Magdalene, the disciples, the religious rulers, the mobs, all have left and its just Jesus and roman governor, Pilate.  

Pilate is intrigued by Jesus.  He has some doubts on Jesus’ guilt.  He is not resolute and he wants to be practical, but he’s curious and he’s searching for an answer.  Jesus was just before a mob demanding his crucifixion.  I’d imagine that the crowd there that day was filled with tension, fear, anxiety.  They were under roman rule, they were enslaved to a religious system that was propping itself up by they’re going along with the system.  They did not want to give up on what they had lived under because it was familiar and they could not see beyond to what Jesus exemplified.  

The religious leaders also needed a distraction to maintain power.  Jesus was challenging their system, their way of living, and they needed to show the crowds they were still in charge.  

They all needed a scapegoat if you will, someone to blame their issues on, someone that they could punish for their own sin.  And, Jesus seemed like a good one to scapegoat.  

Yet, they could not kill Jesus without Roman approval.  But, Pilate wasn’t convinced.  He wanted to appease the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and he also did not want civil unrest.  So, he pushed the pause button and questioned Jesus in private.  

He starts with some probing questions, “ are you the king of the Jews”.  The “you” in Greek is emphatic, are YOU the king of the Jews.  Jesus is also curious; he wants to know if Jesus is being prompted to ask or if it’s his own question.  Jesus asks, is this your idea?  Pilate responds, that it’s his own people who have betrayed Jesus, and wants to know what it is he’s done.  

Then Jesus talks about his kingdom.  His kingdom is not of this world.  The kingdom of this world is about power, prestige, hierarchy, status, enslavement of the masses, and fearful individualism where the focus is on some type of survival, scarcity of resources that pushes one towards selfishness and violence.

Yet, Jesus’ kingdom is not about any of those things, its power comes from humility, confidence, and service.  It is non-hierarchal, relational, and collaborative.  It frees up everyone from slavery to whatever is keeping them from growing towards a deeper truth of who they really are.  It is not based on fear or anxiety but brings peace, presence, and abundance.  It gives us loving community and friendships with others, and it is marked by non-violence.  

Jesus goes on to say that he has come into the world.  That’s a huge statement.  Jesus is saying that he was, before he was even born.  He existed before he came to us in a feeding trough, a manger somewhere near Bethlehem.  And that he came to testify to the Truth.  And, the Truth is embodied in the humanity and the divinity of Jesus.  Jesus says that he is the truth and the truth will set us free elsewhere in scripture.

We so often want to say we believe in the Bible as Jesus followers, but we don’t believe in a book, we believe in the God that is revealed to us through Jesus that is described in the Bible.  Nathan Hamm says this:

The Word of God is “living & active”


because the Word of God is Jesus.

Books don’t live & act. People do.

The Word didn’t become a book.


The Word became flesh.

This Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth, to testify that there is a better way to live and find our being.  Friends, as we go into the world around us, as we listen to our neighbors, we will find God active, we will find so many things that will point us towards a loving God.  And we will grow.  

We often ask the question, how will we survive and grow as a church?  

If we have any chance of growing closer to God, of seeing our church not only survive, but thrive, then we have an opportunity, just like Pilate, to ask Jesus what is truth.  But, unlike Pilate, we can have courage to live on the side of truth, to know the Jesus that embodies truth and to follow his example of going into the world and finding the places and people where God is at work and invite them into our fellowship, even as we join them in friendship in the world that we live in.  

If we can dare to risk this, we will move from death into the resurrection, life filled with Jesus, filled with Truth.

May it be so with us.

Endgame.

Mark 13:1-8

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

My son and I used to have a tradition of going to see the Marvel movies together when they came out.  As he’s gotten older, we have not done that as much…although we did go and see the new Marvel movie, The Eternals, last week.  Which was pretty good, except for the guy behind us snoring…I guess he had a long day…and, I hope that if any of you ever fall asleep during one of my sermons, that you don’t snore…at least loudly.  

Endgame was one of the Marvel movies that Brennan and I saw together.  It was the culmination of several Marvel movies depicting the end of the world.  In this movie, the villain, Thanos, had grabbed all six of these powerful stones that enabled him to destroy half of the universe and 1/2 of its population.  But, the Avenger superheros find a way to reverse time and restore the universe and its population…including many of the Avengers who had vanished.  

Now, that was a movie, and as good it was, it’s still fantasy.  Yet, and we have said this before, we live in “apocalyptic” times.  That doesn’t mean the end of the world, but it does mean the end of some things so that new things can emerge.  It also means that things are being revealed that were hidden, or not recognized before.

Friends, as we read the gospel story, can we not see that this was not only true 2,000 years, but so true today!  

Jesus makes a statement, that the temple, this grand building in Jerusalem that was built by King Solomon, was one of the most amazing structures in antiquity, and made a huge impression on the disciples.  Again, remember last week, when we said that we often go after things that are shiny, appealing, or speak somehow to a sense of oversized grandeur that make us feel important for reasons other than what we were created for?  The disciples kept on falling into the same patterns, going after surface things, wanting to be great, wanting to be a part of the system that kept them from realizing their full humanity.  

Jesus literally goes after them with a blunt statement meant to cause them some dissonance, to make them thing, to shake them out of their comfort.

You see this temple that you are so impressed with?  See how powerful it looks?  How permanent?  Well, nothing is permanent, these stones, large stones, will all fall down, this building will be destroyed…and, so will all of your notions that have been created to give you some sense of control, when in reality, those notions control you and keep you from becoming the person that you have always wanted to be.

Its interesting though, the disciples stick with Jesus.  They know his words and actions carry meaning.  It often happens that when Jesus makes these statements in public, there’s a sidebar conversation with the disciples where he explains further.  After three of the disciples ask in private the meaning of his words, Jesus goes on to say that there will always wars, rumors of wars, human conspiracies, and all sorts of disasters, but something deeper is going on.

Friends, look around!  We see this today, everything is being exposed.  We see our political structures exposed…both sides, all sides.  There are some good people in government, yes, but we have a system that is collapsing from lack of trust, greed, and a lust for power…and everyone blaming others rather than working towards the common good.  The church universal is being exposed as it became complacent and sold out to being an entertainment center, a walled fortress, or a sales pitch.  We have become a society based on business, on transactions, of living above our places, or locations, and zipping around like ants marching towards a slow death,  rather than a community of people, in a location, living in place, being transformed and transformational, and growing into life, the abundant life that Jesus came to show and to reveal to us…and give to us freely without condition!  

The same thing is true in our personal lives.  We go through the throes of life holding on to things, notions, bias, image, and relationships.  They all have to be brought into the light, because often we try to hide behind them and present an image to the world that is so much work.  

God wants us to give us life, real life.  God wants us to live freely and in love with ourselves, others, and to be experiencing God’s movement, God’s love, in every aspect of our lives.  

But, giving birth to life requires pain.  Jesus compares apocalyptic times in our life as “birth pains”.  I have not given birth, but as I’ve shared before, I’ve watched it happen…and I did experience pain when Debbie punched me while giving birth to Brennan.  Birth is hard, we don’t want to leave the comfort of the umbilical cord, the womb, and enter into this crazy, painful, sad, joyful, wonderful world.  Yet, we can’t stay in the womb, that will eventually kill us and kill the mother…we have to leave, we have to grow, we have to trust, and risk.  We really do not have a choice, yet, we also do have a choice to how we live and respond.

Friends, apocalyptic times are all around us, we can accuse, scream, take sides, put others down, live in despair, or we can make a stand, lean into them, grow and learn, and become.  Our world, and our own personal worlds, will end and are dying, but it’s not the end of the world, or our own worlds…no, it’s actually the beginning, a new birth.  

May we live into the possibilities as we embrace the changes in and around us.  

Love.

Mark 12:28-34

The First Commandment

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

While reading this passage the past week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fellow pastor who worked for Vida Joven in Nicaragua.  We were talking about the concept of doing ministry in a certain way, we had a phrase for this way that probably comes from the business world:  “quality of excellence”.  This means that we want to do ministry at a high level, we want to do it well, pour in resources, and make it attractive.  There is some good to that, but it’s not what they strive for with Young Life in Nicaragua much anymore…they don’t have all the resources that we have in the states, so they strive for something better:  “beauty”.  It’s beautiful to see teenagers sitting on a hill at a camp sharing life, laughing and crying together.  It’s beautiful to see folks believing in each other and giving and receiving grace.  

I believe that this beauty is demonstrated in this morning’s scripture passage.   Our passage in Mark 12:28-34 finds Jesus in the midst of four debates with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus had been doing well, so the religious leaders were going to try a theological question, “Teacher, what’s the greatest commandment?”  This passage is also found in other gospel narratives.  They were asking a question with the intent of trapping Jesus, they wanted to put Jesus in some sort of religious box.

This reminds me so much of the debates that happen even today in the church.  We go on and on about so many issues.  We get so far into these debates, that we often forget why we got into them in the first place, they begin to take priority in our lives over honoring relationships…so much so that the phrase rings true that the church has become more known for what it is seemingly against than what it is for. 

Jesus takes this question and gives a beautiful answer in two parts.  The first part is this:    “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 

These words have power and intimacy.  We are to love God with all we’ve got, everything.  God is not supposed to be number one our list, God is supposed to be everything on our list.  All of our lives are interpreted and have meaning through this love for God and God’s love for us.  God created us out of love.  In God’s very nature of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Trinity, there is deep relationship bonded by love that created us, saved us, and sustains us…this God loves us so much, and the love that God has for us and has placed within creation, believes in us and gives us the capacity to love others and love God.

Jesus also says that the Lord is ONE!  That’s powerful. God, three persons, one…and this same God is one with us.  We are bonded together into the Trinity!  

This love also gives us the ability to love ourselves and to see the beauty within ourselves.  We cannot truly love our neighbors until we begin to see how valuable we are within ourselves.  God created us good and in his image.  Read the first couple of chapters of Genesis, God is pouring himself into his creation, into us.  We are works of art.  Oftentimes we let circumstances and decisions in life diminish us.  As it says in John 10:10, there is a thief who comes to steal and destroy our lives, yet Jesus wants us to have life, abundant life.  

Yet, we were created for beauty and when we grow to understand the beauty that is our true selves and that God created and animates our very being, we can then begin to love God and to love our neighbors.

Of course, that begs the question then, who are our neighbors?  Well, everyone really.  The folks we live next door to, the folks on the other side of town, folks across the world really.  We are called to see everyone as being made in the image of God.  That can be hard sometimes, folks are different, have different tastes, cultures, personalities, mannerisms.  I get that we simply don’t get along with folks at times.  We have former friends or even family members who may have wounded us deeply.  Yet, God calls us to simply love, which requires a lot of hard work of self-reflection, cultivating our identity with God, and wisdom in how to deal with the persons around us.  We become true neighbors when we practice what the good Samaritan did by simply reaching out to those around us and loving them well.  

I believe that God calls the church to do this as well as a community of faith.  But, it requires an “outside-in” mentality.   So many times in churches we start from the inside and create “stuff” for people to come to, then we’re surprised when folks don’t show up.  What we should probably do is start from outside the church, talk to people, hear their desires, and let them co-create something with us.  This requires a deep sense that churches be rooted in a neighborhood and have a parish mentality.  The word parish from the greek means this:  πάροικος (paroikos), “dwelling beside, stranger, sojourner”.  What a great definition!  It means that the church is called to be beside its neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to be a fellow sojourner.  We are called to serve and to be alongside, not to issue edicts or to have “I’m better” mindset.  

When we practice this, beauty happens!  We are able to see God’s Presence in amazing ways as we love our neighbor and experience God’s love and attempt to love God back!  God is glorified by us when we simply live in God’s glory for us in relationship with each other and with God!

So, where do we start doing this as a church?

  1. Know that God has placed you where you are in your neighborhood and church.  All that God needs for beautiful things to happen, for community transformation, is present in this room.  So often in church we talk in terms of scarcity, not enough money, not enough people, not enough vision, etc.  Yet, I believe in a God of abundance!  There is a universe of talent present right here in this room right now!  You are all beautiful people with so much to share and to learn and to grow!  It’s exciting!
  2. Practice gratitude.  Don’t create more programs or committees or look for the latest church growth technique.  Just look around, invite folks over for a shared meal, sit on the back porch or deck and share life together.  And be thankful for the folks around you.
  3. Listen to yourself honestly.  Don’t be afraid to look into the darkness of your own life.  You won’t be alone there, God is present everywhere.  Get a spiritual director that will listen to God with you.  Find others to hold your hand as you do this.  I have a spiritual director and a group of guys that meet regularly.  These guys know me and I know them.  We love each other well and they hold me up without trying to fix me.
  4. Listen to your neighborhood.  Get involved in the local school, ask local business leaders what they see or need, open the doors of the church to civic groups, meet for coffee with folks from other churches.  Don’t have an agenda other than building relationships and being curious about what God may be up to in your community.  Then, get behind what God is already doing and get into that sweet spot where God’s Spirit will carry you.  

Know that seeing beauty and being a part of the beauty of God’s relational and community work is simple, yet it’s also the hardest thing that we’ll ever do.  There is a lot of darkness in this world, we do have a lot of distractions.  Yet, God is with us and the time is now to be faithfully present with each other and with God and to be a part of God’s kingdom presence and transformation in our lives and communities.  

There is a growing conversation within Cincinnati that is globally connected to see communities transformed in simple, deep, and beautiful ways.  I also have to report how excited I am to be a part of this conversation in our Presbytery and with our UCC Association right now as we explore where God is at work in and through the church, not for church growth per se, but for community transformation as I’ve been asked to be a part of a “new worshipping community task force”…part of that work will also be in collaboration with our UCC association in years to come.  Fleming Road UCC is in the middle of a sea-change within Cincy and really across the US and world!  Really!

So, friends, I’m looking forward to seeing more beauty in our neighborhood and in this church.  

My good friend Bart Campolo a few years ago summed up this Mark passage with this phrase:  “Love God.  Love others.  Nothing else matters.”  Friends, you are loved and you have loved.  May we continue on and grow deeper in our understanding of what it means to see beauty in each other, in ourselves, and in God’s vibe throughout our city.

Greatness.

Mark 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We all have a desire at times to be great in something.  We would like to think that there is something out there that we can excel at.  I know for me that I sometimes have this achievement mindset.  It’s OK to be an achiever, to want to work towards a goal, to get things done, but sometimes that can cloud your thinking.

A good example of that is right before I got engaged to Debbie.  I was pumped that after so many years of wanting to see my relationship with Debbie move towards a goal, it was finally coming together.  I bought a ring and I had a vision of what our marriage could be like.  

I got together with my friend Chuck Scott.  Chuck is a great guy, former NFL player, amazing family, and a national leader for Young Life.  He’s also someone whose opinion I highly appreciated and.  His dad, Charlie, was one of the original Young Life staff persons from the 1950’s and was one of my mentors.  I went to him to ask him about what he thought about me asking Debbie to marry him.  He thought very highly of Debbie, he tried to hire her in his Young Life area a couple of times, and I knew that he loved me as a friend.  

His response, wait…do you understand what you are getting into…he even said don’t get married to Debbie.  He tried to talk me out of it.  He said marriage was hard, that I wanted this so bad that I wasn’t thinking straight, I needed to count the cost, and that even though I had this friendship with Debbie for close to a decade, I needed to take a timeout and think and pray.  He was right in many ways, and he helped me to gain some perspective.

I still ended up asking Deb to marry me, and his dad, Charlie, co-officiated our wedding.  

Out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationship and growth I’ve received from Deb as a partner has been overwhelming.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

In much the same way, I had folks try to talk me out of going into the ministry.  I know that I had some personal visions that involved changing the world in big ways.  I wanted to see great things happen.  But, others cautioned me.  My dad even told me after I graduated from UK and told him that I was going into the ministry that I was making a mistake.  His exact first words:  “I just paid for 4 years of college for you to do what?”.  

Again, it may not have been the right wording or the right motivation, but it did cause me to ask some questions.

I still went into the ministry, obviously, as I stand here today.  And, again, out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationships that have been formed, my life and others lives have been changed…and the same is happening here at Fleming Road UCC in our lives together.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

As we jump into this passage, let’s remember that we are seeing the disciples live’s stories being written…Jesus is calling them away from a fantasy to something deeper, something better for them…Jesus is inviting them into the present moment, not for some pie-in-the-sky transactional relationship, but to let go of their desire to live into a narrative that want to create, a narrative that their culture may have conditioned them for, towards a narrative of loving themselves, others, and seeing that God wants them, and us, to grow into what Thomas Merton, the great catholic monk philosopher would say, our true Selves.  

Our gospel lesson tells us about the disciples having some wrong motivations for being followers of Jesus.  They are focused on this idea of being great and having special places.  They had waited for so long for the messiah and had high expectations, some fantasies.  James and John have some moxie and ask Jesus to sit on the right and left.  The other disciples are mad at them, but they are wondering the same thing.  

Jesus gives them a response, one he defers to the Father…really, he’s deferring to the community that he’s in of the Trinity.  A community of three in one that is so tight that things are created, saved, and sustained through deep, good relationship.  A relationship of yielding to one another.  

And, he says if you want to be first, you’ve got to be last and the last will be first.  He flips the understanding that is in the world.  A world of hierarchy and social climbing.  

Jesus also welcomes their commitment, but asks some hard questions, are you willing to struggle, to experience hardship, to truly live into his baptism?  They are commited, the have experienced a call, but he’s causing them to pause and think deeply about that calling and commitment as my friends have done for me.  

Rob Bell shares this about our commitment and calling to live life as Jesus followers, really as fully alive humans:  

Jesus is inviting his disciples, his friends, into a life that isn’t defined by greatness in worldly standards.   He is calling them into a deeper, more beautiful life that is full and expansive.  

We are called to ask ourselves some of the same questions.  Are we willing to suffer, are we willing to die, and are we willing to live life to the fullest and experience resurrection in Jesus’ baptism that symbolizes the old life dying and the new life beginning?  Are we willing to live into that as persons and as people of faith gathered at Fleming Road UCC?  Are we willing to let go of all that we hold on to so tightly in order to experience the beauty of God’s Presence in our lives. 

St. Augustine wrote in City of God:  “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are always too full to receive them.”  Jesus came to serve and calls us into a life filled with meaning and goodness, but we have to let go of the things that we think bring greatness.  If we are willing to serve others and to live as Jesus followers, then the story that is emerging out of Fleming Road UCC will be filled with hope for the world around us and in us…and we will see something greater happen than than our fantasies, especially as we live in the present moment, greater than we could have ever imagined.  May it be so!

Mark 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We all have a desire at times to be great in something.  We would like to think that there is something out there that we can excel at.  I know for me that I sometimes have this achievement mindset.  It’s OK to be an achiever, to want to work towards a goal, to get things done, but sometimes that can cloud your thinking.

A good example of that is right before I got engaged to Debbie.  I was pumped that after so many years of wanting to see my relationship with Debbie move towards a goal, it was finally coming together.  I bought a ring and I had a vision of what our marriage could be like.  

I got together with my friend Chuck Scott.  Chuck is a great guy, former NFL player, amazing family, and a national leader for Young Life.  He’s also someone whose opinion I highly appreciated and.  His dad, Charlie, was one of the original Young Life staff persons from the 1950’s and was one of my mentors.  I went to him to ask him about what he thought about me asking Debbie to marry him.  He thought very highly of Debbie, he tried to hire her in his Young Life area a couple of times, and I knew that he loved me as a friend.  

His response, wait…do you understand what you are getting into…he even said don’t get married to Debbie.  He tried to talk me out of it.  He said marriage was hard, that I wanted this so bad that I wasn’t thinking straight, I needed to count the cost, and that even though I had this friendship with Debbie for close to a decade, I needed to take a timeout and think and pray.  He was right in many ways, and he helped me to gain some perspective.

I still ended up asking Deb to marry me, and his dad, Charlie, co-officiated our wedding.  

Out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationship and growth I’ve received from Deb as a partner has been overwhelming.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

In much the same way, I had folks try to talk me out of going into the ministry.  I know that I had some personal visions that involved changing the world in big ways.  I wanted to see great things happen.  But, others cautioned me.  My dad even told me after I graduated from UK and told him that I was going into the ministry that I was making a mistake.  His exact first words:  “I just paid for 4 years of college for you to do what?”.  

Again, it may not have been the right wording or the right motivation, but it did cause me to ask some questions.

I still went into the ministry, obviously, as I stand here today.  And, again, out of that commitment, there have been some moments of greatness, and some moments of darkness.  There have been failures, lots of them.  Yet, the relationships that have been formed, my life and others lives have been changed…and the same is happening here at Fleming Road UCC in our lives together.  Our story is still being written and I’m grateful.  

As we jump into this passage, let’s remember that we are seeing the disciples live’s stories being written…Jesus is calling them away from a fantasy to something deeper, something better for them…Jesus is inviting them into the present moment, not for some pie-in-the-sky transactional relationship, but to let go of their desire to live into a narrative that want to create, a narrative that their culture may have conditioned them for, towards a narrative of loving themselves, others, and seeing that God wants them, and us, to grow into what Thomas Merton, the great catholic monk philosopher would say, our true Selves.  

Our gospel lesson tells us about the disciples having some wrong motivations for being followers of Jesus.  They are focused on this idea of being great and having special places.  They had waited for so long for the messiah and had high expectations, some fantasies.  James and John have some moxie and ask Jesus to sit on the right and left.  The other disciples are mad at them, but they are wondering the same thing.  

Jesus gives them a response, one he defers to the Father…really, he’s deferring to the community that he’s in of the Trinity.  A community of three in one that is so tight that things are created, saved, and sustained through deep, good relationship.  A relationship of yielding to one another.  

And, he says if you want to be first, you’ve got to be last and the last will be first.  He flips the understanding that is in the world.  A world of hierarchy and social climbing.  

Jesus also welcomes their commitment, but asks some hard questions, are you willing to struggle, to experience hardship, to truly live into his baptism?  They are commited, the have experienced a call, but he’s causing them to pause and think deeply about that calling and commitment as my friends have done for me.  

Rob Bell shares this about our commitment and calling to live life as Jesus followers, really as fully alive humans:  

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Jesus is inviting his disciples, his friends, into a life that isn’t defined by greatness in worldly standards.   He is calling them into a deeper, more beautiful life that is full and expansive.  

We are called to ask ourselves some of the same questions.  Are we willing to suffer, are we willing to die, and are we willing to live life to the fullest and experience resurrection in Jesus’ baptism that symbolizes the old life dying and the new life beginning?  Are we willing to live into that as persons and as people of faith gathered at Fleming Road UCC?  Are we willing to let go of all that we hold on to so tightly in order to experience the beauty of God’s Presence in our lives. 

St. Augustine wrote in City of God:  “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are always too full to receive them.”  Jesus came to serve and calls us into a life filled with meaning and goodness, but we have to let go of the things that we think bring greatness.  If we are willing to serve others and to live as Jesus followers, then the story that is emerging out of Fleming Road UCC will be filled with hope for the world around us and in us…and we will see something greater happen than than our fantasies, especially as we live in the present moment, greater than we could have ever imagined.  May it be so!

See.

Mark 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

When I was a kid, we used to take trips to Mammoth Cave in KY.   I remember a couple of the tours of the cave.  It was always fun to see the stalagtites and stalagmites coming from the floor and ceiling.  Of course, on every tour, at some point in the cave, the tour guide would have everyone stand in the center of a large cavern, and then turn off the lights.  Of course, it was disorienting, you couldn’t see a thing!  Not even your hand being put right in front of you.  

Years later, I would go spelunking, or cave exploring, in a few small caves.  Friends of mine would crawl through some places and we’d have headlamps.  If those headlamps went dead or we broke them, we had the benefit of having back-up lights or are friends to help us out.

Our main character in our gospel lesson this morning knows what its like to not be able to see in the dark.  Bartimaeus, or Bart, is a blind beggar.  In 1st century culture, if you are blind, you don’t have many options.  You are pushed aside, not useful to society, not productive, and forced to make a living by begging, by leading on the hospitality of others.

Now, Bartimaeus has a name, has an identity.  He’s the son of Timaeus.  He has had relationships, he is a part of a family.  But, his blindness has left him isolated, alone, left out.  Could you imagine the hurt that he felt, the desperation.  

We know from this passage that he hasn’t been blind all of his life, maybe he remembers what it’s like to see things or to experience the love of a family.  But, now he’s left to beg, without much of a future and no friends.  

When I was in a cave with family as a child or with friends later, I wasn’t alone in the dark.  I had others around me that I could lean in on.  Bartimeaus doesn’t have that luxury.

Put yourself in Bart’s shoes.

When Jesus comes walking down the road, leaving Jericho, surrounded by a large crowd.  Bartimaeus senses the excitement of the crowd, when he hears its Jesus, he shouts out, have mercy on me Son of David!  He’s using Son of David in order to get Jesus to notice that he’s connected to him, to show him mercy.  I have to admit, I respect Bart!  He had some moxie, he was desperate, but he was also filled with hope one last time.  

Well, the disciples have places to go, they don’t have time for this guy, they try to get him to quiet down, they cannot imagine that this moment is filled with meaning and drama, they are not thinking of possibilities, only convenience, the next meeting, and not wanting to be bothered…but Jesus hears him.  He calls Bart to him and asks, what do you want me to do?  Bart springs up, comes to him and says, my teacher, again an address of honor, help me to see again.  Jesus says that his faith has made him whole, that he is healed.  

His sight returns, and, he follows Jesus.

Friends, as I read the gospel lesson this week, I’m not sure who the blind persons were in this story.   Sure, Bart was physically blind, but the disciples had eyes to see, yet they couldn’t see the possibility of the moment.  They were with Jesus, identified with Jesus, but they were focused on their agenda and not the person right in front of them.  Maybe they were wowed by the large crowds and felt like the numbers were more important than the folks right in front of them, they looked to the crowds and not to the persons.

Folks in this story could not “see” one another!  Yet, Jesus saw them and saw the blind man…really saw them…and that enabled the blind man to not only have his physical sight, but to “see” Jesus.  Isn’t it a gift when we can be present with someone and they see us, they don’t see things on the surface, but the real in us!  What a gift!

It’s also interesting to note that this man was spontaneous, he didn’t overthink the moment, he seized it.  In comparison, the disciples were filled with fear, silence, hesitation, opposition…they were contrarians to the man’s faithfulness.  

Friends, this is the kind of faith that God is calling us towards, the faith of Bartimaeus.  We are called to be in the moment, to seize it.  We have opportunities in our lives, daily, to live in hope and expectation.  God wants to deliver us out of the darkness and into the light.  Darkness, for a season, is a good thing…it may give us rest, perspective, and growth.  When seeds are planted in the ground, it is dark…with nourishment from the soil, water, etc. those seeds push through the resistance, grow strong and move towards the sun, towards light, which also gives growth to blossom.  God wants to restore our relationships, to restore our sense of community, to restore us…to blossom and be all that we were intended to be…  God wants us to “see” ourselves, to “see” others, and to know that God always sees us, the real us, and loves us!

And, God’s called us to notice the blind beggars, or those in our pews and in our neighborhoods that we often look over.  

It seems as a church, that we also are like the disciples in that we get caught up in crowds and numbers, or trying to get somewhere, that we miss the moment right in front of us.  Folks are literally jumping in front of us, asking for mercy!  We sometimes have folks come by the church looking for help, we have friends of Fleming Road UCC calling us to see if we can participate in something.  Friends, we have eyes to see, but do we have real sight, can we see God’s work in our midst?  

Thankfully, we are not alone, we have friends around us to help us, we do not have to be fearful or hesitant, we can live faithfully in exuberance with a God who is calling us to be the new parish that can bring hope and healing to our neighborhood.  

May it be so.

Rich.

Mark 10:17-31

The Rich Man

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

 As a kid, I wanted to do the right thing.  I found out early that if I say the right things, live the right way, do the right things, then I’d have some approval.  

That’s how I lived life pretty much.  I was a good kid.  

I was also raised in the church, so I thought that doing the right things and believing the right ways, pleased God.  

However, I also wanted to find a way to express myself, to gain the attention of others.  So, I grew my hair long, and played bagpipes.  But, still, did the things that I thought I should.  I kept the commandments so to speak.

My senior year, things started to fall apart inside of me…and outside of me.  I began to have deeper questions about life, relationships.  It came to a head on a Campus Life ski weekend.  I took a risk, shared with my adult leaders that I was struggling, I did all the right things but still felt lonely.  I was asking, in essence, what could I do to enter the kindgom of God, to be in God’s Presence, to feel God’s favor…because, I was doing the stuff, but not feeling approval.

My club leaders began to share with me that it was more about relationship.  That God’s Presence was there, but it couldn’t be earned, just lived in.  That relationship was filled with grace and love, that love and grace eventually began to have a transformative effect on me as I grew in my awareness of God’s Presence.  It also pulled me towards a calling to be and do who I am and what I do.  

Our gospel lesson this morning is similar.  The rich young ruler came to Jesus, asking what to do to enter the Kingdom of God.  He first calls Jesus “good”.  Jesus pushes back, and says why call me Good, only God is good…in essence, saying that goodness is about God and we live in that goodness.  

Jesus goes on to say, obey the commandments.  The young rich ruler, says that he has, since his youth.  Jesus looks at him with love the scripture says.  He loved this kid, not because of what he had done, but simply because of him being him.  Plus, the kid was honest.  Jesus then says that he lacks one thing, sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow him.  A disciple could not have the distractions of patronage and financial obligations that came with being a man of wealth, they needed to be willing to be committed and setting aside all of the trappings of status and self importance.  Even though this young ruler was pious and devout, he was unwilling to surrender and allow God’s love to run its course in his life.

This was hard…it’s really hard to give up anything that we hold on to that we draw our identity from, wealth, our roles that we play, the persons that we project to be to others.  Yet, Jesus is telling him that true wealth, true identity, is measured by how well we love others and experience God through relationships, especially with those on the margins, those that are seeking community, yet have been left out.  

The rich young ruler leaves Jesus heartbroken, he can’t let go of what he has or who has become or perceives himself to be…the disciples are perplexed, they don’t know what to say, they focus on the material wealth and ask more questions.  Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than to get into heaven.  It’s often said that Jesus is referring to merchants coming to a city gate at night.  They can’t get into a walled city then because the gates are closed, but there are smaller doors that the can get into called the “eye of the needle”.  They have to take everything off the camel, all of their goods, in order to enter.  Most scholars would say that’s not the case at all, Jesus is literally talking about a life size camel and a real needle.  It’s impossible.  

In essence, we can’t take “stuff” with us, material stuff or the personal baggage of image that we’ve created….and image that does not remind us that we are made in the image of God…  We have to be willing to share our material stuff as well as our personal lives with others…in essence, to be willing to not hold on to stuff, to give it away, as well as to not hold on too tightly the realities that we’ve created, but to be willing to give ourselves away, to let God’s love probe deeper into our lives, and to be shaped by that love.  

When the disciples still question and ask, how can anyone get into God’s Presence, into heaven?  Jesus says that with God all things are possible.  What seems impossible with all that we know and understand, with God, there is possibility.  God wants to spark our imagination, give us hope, but it takes a commitment and a desire from us to risk everything.  

I believe that Jesus was telling this young man, just like my club leaders told me 37 years ago, let go of my desire to seek God’s approval by things that I have or do, but to know that I have God’s approval already, that God looks at me like Jesus does to the rich young ruler, with love.  My response is hopefully not to shy away, but to rise to the invitation to enter into trusting God with all that I have and to imagine the possibilities that God can open within me and outside of me.  

The disciples state that they’ve left everything to follow you Jesus.  Jesus responds that they will be rewarded with even more relationships and with eternal life…which starts now.

Friends, I find this to be so true.  Last weekend in Atlanta, and this week here in Cincinnati, I was blessed beyond measure with conversations, surprising, unplanned conversations with friends in Atlanta, the community and with friends here in the church.  I am blessed, you are blessed.  We have relationships!  Are we willing to walk into God’s vision for us as a church, as a community, and away from our visions of what church should be?  If we are willing, if we give up all to follow Jesus’ way of love and relationship with others and with those on the margins, then we will experience God’s Presence, God’s kingdom in even more beautiful ways! 

Salt.

Mark 9:38-50 

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someonecasting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.  50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

As I was thinking about this conversation around our lectionary reading today, my friend Bruce Baker came to mind. Bruce, or “Bake” as we called him, was the executive director of student ministry non-profit in Lexington many years ago. It was a ministry that I was involved with in high school, it had a huge impact on my life. The relationships that I formed with other students and with the adult leaders of this group helped to shape me in many ways growing up in Louisville. 

When I got to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I was thrilled to learn that this group was starting up in Lexington and I met Bake. Bake and I began a great friendship and a working partnership that established this group in Lexington and its still going strong 28 years later.

I thought of Bake because of the title of today’s sermon: “Salty”. Bake was very salty! He was one of those persons that everyone simply loved to be around, he was the go-to guy in Lexington for faith leaders. At the time, he was in his late forties and really was an established presence in the Lexington community. He was everyone’s friend, yet also not afraid to mix things up a bit. 

He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton, the Abbey of Gethesamani and the importance of Sabbath retreats and rest, and he was a Presbyterian Elder that greatly influenced me in my decision to become Presbyterian! 

Bake was also not afraid. He would joke about his willingness to do anything for a dollar. Which he backed up, repeatedly. There were numerous occasions where some of the young folks at the time would dare Bake to do something incredibly outlandish, and to our astonishment, he’d do it. For instance, the time we dared him to climb the water wheel while in line for the Beast roller coaster. And, in front of hundreds of folks, he did. 

But, there were also many times where Bake would go more than the extra mile to support us and to reach out to kids in the projects of Lexington, as well as the wealthy kids in the suburbs that were so lonely. His example pushed me in so many ways. 

Bake would also work with anyone willing to love our community and kids. He modeled what it was like to bring different denominations together and faith communities for the common good. Plus, he was committed to Lexington. He had many of what I’d call the celebrity Christian leaders at the time, both conservative folks and progressive folks try to get him to come and work with them. Oftentimes for higher, guaranteed pay and a higher platform. Bake would have none of that, he may have been tempted, but he valued the relationships he had in Lexington too much. 

Bake modeled so much of what our gospel lessons are sharing. The disciples were trying to get Jesus to recognize how special they were when they tried to stop others from driving out demons. They wanted to be exclusive, in their own identity as disciples. Yet, Jesus shatters that image by saying that whoever is not against us for us, that we can’t be so prideful to think we can do this on our own, that we have to recognize that if someone offers to help us, or to give us a gift to refresh us that could encourage us, we should take it. 

Bake got that and didn’t position Campus Life to be a siloed ministry. He worked with everyone. That sometimes didn’t help our “brand identity”, but it did help bring the community together. 

Bake had a way of focusing on the main thing: Jesus and Jesus’ love for others. I found this quote from an intentional Celtic community that highlights this way of living that fits well with our conversation this morning: 

“We can do worse than remember a principle which gives us a firm rock and leaves the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle ‘Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted’” – Herbert Butterfield 

Another example of this here in Springfield Township are all of the faith communities starting to work together, the conversations that have been started. They have all reached out to me since I’ve been here with offers and desires to partner with us and to encourage Fleming Road UCC. Connect Day was a great example. 

It’s also interesting to think about Bake and his calling to teenagers in relation to this morning’s text. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus tells us to welcome all, especially those on the margins of society, those who are overlooked or looked down upon. Children in the 1st century we’re considered non-persons. Jesus is giving them recognition and this week’s text he continues with hard language about welcoming children and not causing them to stumble. 

With a background in in youth ministry, I thought of this passage often…I did not want to cause anyone to stumble! But, this passage also says a lot about taking risks. It’s about being vulnerable and entering into friendships with those considered on the outside. The saying in this passage about cutting of your foot or gouging out an eye comes from a common saying in the first century, however, the original proverb said to cut out both eyes or hands! This is an attempt to say that it’s better to lose a part of you than all of who you are, and if you are not reaching out and loving those on the margins well, then you are missing the mark, you are sinning. And, again, as we talked about, sin is relational…it’s not only present in what you do or are, but what you do not do and who you are not. 

Who you are is a wonderful human made in God’s image called to live and love as Christ did and does…to be the body of Christ. The opposite of that is to deny God’s presence and working in your life, which leads to a sense of loss of identity, or hell. 

Hell may or may not be real, but it’s an alternate reality. God never intended for there to be a hell, and the ways we tend to think of hell aren’t really expressed in Scripture…some would even say that hell is not a part of the scriptural canon… The true reality that God intended is heaven. Heaven is being in God’s Presence. That Presence is expansive, wide, and we can catch glimpses of it everywhere when are eyes are opened to that reality. CS Lewis talks about heaven in his classic fictional book The Great Divorce as being a place of endless wonder and hell being a small crack in heaven. Yet, we, humanity make that crack so much bigger as we settle for lives filled with dysfunction and lies about our true selves as God sees us. So often we live in a place of darkness or hell. God’s love is amazing, it is so amazing that it is overwhelming and to some that’s wonderful, but to others that can be really scary. 

Donald Bloesch in his book The Last Things says this: “…hell is being exposed to the light that redeems even when darkness is much preferred. Hell is the incapacity to love even in the presence of love.” You see, the problem is not does God forgives us or love us, but can we forgive and love ourselves and others? We want to hide from God and his love for us behind our insecurities, our comfort, our wealth, our pride…whatever it is that we are holding on to that somehow gives us some false sense of security. We often do not want to be exposed to the light of God’s love that exposes everything for what it truly is, so we often prefer to live in darkness. pastedGraphic.png pastedGraphic_1.png 

Jesus says that we will be salted with fire in this morning’s passage. It’s interesting, fire burns and it warms. It can bring life or turn it to ashes. Either way, it consumes us. The fire of Jesus’ love does consume us, but it brings us life. I want to be that person. 

My friend Bake, and many others over the years, have been that salt in my life. We can be that way with each other, and with the world around us. May we sprinkle that salt to all we encounter…including ourselves! 

Welcome.

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I’m a runner.  Most of you know that, and I struggled this week on whether I should use a running metaphor today, but this applies.  My image as a runner is important to me.  I also like to run fast.  I’m 53 years old, yet, I can run farther and faster now than I ever could…even with some minor aches and pains this past year.  Sometimes, I have this image of myself really training hard in hard and winning my age division at the Boston Marathon or something similar.  I don’t want to settle for being a good runner, I want to be a great runner.

I also imagined the same thing for the cross country team I coach.  I want them to go all the way to State every year.  Never happened as a team, but we did some individual runners to state and our girls team made regionals in a magical year.  

Yet, here’s the thing, running is a sport where you can’t hide.  All runners experience something similar, we are constantly humbled.  Most runners imagine winning, coming in first…but, obviously, that doesn’t happen all the time! 

In this sport, the only way you get better is by running daily, running workouts that make you suffer and experience some pain…not to the point of injury, but pain nonetheless.  It’s hard.  Yet, something emerges within, you begin to appreciate others, you experience a shared deep connection with other runners as you put yourself out there.  

You are also vulnerable after a race, extremely vulnerable.  After running the Boston Marathon in 2016 and being extremely humbled as I ran it injured and it only got worst.  When I crossed the line, I only wanted to call my daughter who I knew would understand as a runner…I cried when I started talking to her, and I don’t really cry that often.  

As a coach, I also have to remember that my words to my runners after a race have to be honest, authentic, and also encouraging.  Especially to my own kids ran for our team!

Many of those words after a race are themes that I’ve repeated often, yet so many times they are simply not heard, yet, after a race, after the suffering, they often are heard in a way that is much more meaningful and they are received in a way that is almost very innocent and pure.  Plus, honestly, I had some cred with these kids because they knew that I’m willing to suffer in races as well, they know that I know what they are experiencing, and that I was with them.

Running can be a great parallel to life, and to this morning’s gospel lesson.  

Jesus has been with his disciples, he wanted to simply teach his disciples something meaningful, so he went through Galilee in secret as it says.  He was teaching them that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.  This was hard for them to hear and understand, but he kept on saying it, teaching it.  It was important to Jesus because he was called into this world as the representation of all humanity.  He was not only telling the disciples that he would suffer, die, and rise again, but that they would be participating in that suffering, death, and resurrection through him.  

The disciples were probably keenly interested in the new life part, the resurrection part, but in order to experience that resurrection, before we can truly understand what it means to live life as God intended, we have to experience suffering, we have to die.  This isn’t a cruel  joke on God’s part, it’s a reality that we, as created beings, don’t always see or experience life as beautiful as it was meant to be.  We have to go through experiences in life that push to ask some of the hard questions.

Yet, the disciples, like us, were not interested in the harder questions, they were asking the question:  which one of us is greater?  What is our image to God?  Where will we stand with God at the end of time?  What’s our status?

In the midst of those conversations, it seems like the disciples were focused on the resurrection part.  Which I get, don’t we all want to run to the ending of a story, we want to feel good and triumphant.  The passage even says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.  Could that have been because they were afraid to confront the hard realities of suffering, of pain?  

So, they escape by arguing about who’s going to be greatest.  Or try to hide.  But, they are missing the mark and Jesus would not let them hide.  Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they grew silent.  They knew that Jesus had caught them in a “sin”.  We don’t talk much about the word “sin”, but it is an archery term actually, it means missing the mark.  When you don’t hit the bullseye with an arrow.  

It in this context, sin is a relational term.  The disciples were missing the mark, they were focused on themselves, avoiding the hard questions, being distracted, rather than lifting each other up and loving well.

What does Jesus do?  Well, he doesn’t send down thunder on them, he doesn’t condemn them.  He does the opposite, he treats them with respect and simply calls them together, sits with them, and brings a child into their circle.  He encourages them to serve others, to be last, to put others before them.  

The example of a child is important to note.  Children in the first century were considered non-persons.  They were often slaves, they were of no value.  They were truly on the margins.  I tell my kids all of the time how amazing they are and how loved they are, but this wasn’t even close to the reality in Jesus’ time.

By doing this, by bringing in a child, Jesus is saying that children are the stand-in for himself, for the Son of God.  We should welcome children, those on the margins as we would God, the creator of the universe.  It’s not about becoming childish so we can enter the kingdom, it says much more about maturity, about being bigger than our selfish desires or our protected self-image and welcoming others in.

Friends, we are saved by God’s grace, all of us live in God’s love whether we recognize it or not.  In the UCC, we believe that God’s love, God’s salvation action has more to do with Jesus’ actions on our behalf than our actions.  We can’t evoke God’s salvation, he gives it to us, all of us, even those who have felt left out.  

We are also called, as followers of Jesus, to live into this salvation with a sense of growth and maturity.  We are called to live resurrection lives.  Maturity happens as we grow through experiences with ourselves and with others.  Oftentimes that growth happens when we enter into relationships with those who we may not normally associate with…God has so many friendships, so much growth, so much life, real life, waiting for each of us and for this church.  As we become welcoming in our lives personally and corporately as a church, we will experience growth and we will the experience the joy of our salvation.  

May we welcome life as it comes to us:  suffering, death, resurrection…even as we welcome others in our communities who walk through these doors or that we meet in the neighborhood, welcoming them as we would welcome Jesus.  

Declare.

Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[a]30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[b] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[c] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Bold question by Jesus in this morning’s text!  “Who do people say that I am?”  If someone were to ask that about you, what would you say?  Take a mental checklist of things to say…

If it were me, I’d first think of being a father, a spouse (most days if you ask Debbie I think), a pastor, a runner, a neighbor, etc.  

But, who are you really?  Who am I really?  I know that for me, those are roles that I play, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but who I am, how I know myself and others, who really know me, are able to see me and I am able to see them at a deeper level.  

A few months ago, we talked about the South African Zulu greeting and response, “Sawa bona”.  When one is present with someone else, they would tell them, “I see you”, the response, “I am here.”  

It is a powerful statement of being present with someone else.  It also means that two folks have a deep sense of their own self because they are able to see others and to be present with others.  

In so many ways, I think that’s authentic friendship.  

We are seeing that in this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark.  Jesus is asking his disciples, who do people say that I am.  The disciples give a lot of descriptors, but only one, Peter, is able to see beyond the descriptors and to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one, the true friend of all peoples regardless of social status, of life situations, of their actions or sins.  

Jesus doesn’t want the word to get out just yet, he tells his disciples to let things unfold, to be patient.

Jesus then goes on to say that he would suffer.  Greatly.  Friendship with humanity, authentic friendship, comes at a cost.  In this case, this kind of life was going to lead Jesus into GREAT suffering, incredible shame, being exposed fully to the world…naked, scarred, broken.

And, something else, that he would go through all of this, but then rise again.  That, out of his suffering, his humiliation, his death exposed to the world, that he would rise again.  That no matter what he goes through, that love will win out and he will rise.  

He said this openly and the disciples, especially Peter, were stunned.  They thought of the descriptors, they wanted a deliverer, someone who can save them but without the pain and humiliation.  They wanted a triumphant God, a national hero that would solve their problems but without the hurt and scandal.

Jesus would have none of that…he gets mad and has a rather strong rebuke for Peter, “get behind me Satan”.  

You see, friends, even genuine friends, sometimes get a bit cloudy or hazy in what they see in one another.  In this case, Jesus is strongly telling Peter to wake up, to not hide behind some kind of hero type messiah, a nationalist messiah that would deliver Israel from the Roman occupation or make them a great nation again in the eyes of the world.  

No, Jesus was saying that to follow him, there something deeper going on.  He is saying that he has come to give life, to give Presence, to all of those suffering with humiliation, with brokenness, with pain, and even death.  That they can walk with him as he walks with them through the throes of life.  And, that they too will rise with him…but, they, along with him, will have to go through the hard stuff of life.  

They may even lose their lives.  Actually, they will lose their lives, in order to gain life.  Everything.

Friends, as I continue the journey of this summer, and really my whole life, of reconciling within me the grief of loss, that even things that I may hold on to dearly are dying, that this is the process of life…and that the messiah, the true friend, is with me in that process and that I too am rising again in the midst of the shame and the suffering of death.  Being with mom for the 24 hours before she died was hard…it’s been hard with every person that I’ve witnessed die…but, when it’s your mom, it was hard to see her struggle, hard to hear her wanting to go home, then hard to hear her breathe so painfully for much of a day, and then to simply stop and be in that quiet moment.  At times there was a tragic beauty in it, but mostly not very dignified…it was a struggle.  

Yet, it’s something that we all will experience.  And, we have a hope in resurrection because of Jesus.  But, let’s also remember that Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the scars of his humiliation.  And, yet, he overcame…and so will we, scars and all.  

And, you know what, that’s good news.  We have an earthy, really, honest faith that not only is with us in the hard stuff, as well as the good stuff, but a faith that is like yeast in the dough as it says in scripture that is causing new and beautiful things within us to grow.